Texas History, John Ford, and John Wayne

I didn’t see The Searchers when it was released in 1956.  It wasn’t the sort of Western anyone would take a child to see.  Fess Parker as Davy Crockett was more my speed in those days.  John Wayne was not one of my childhood heroes.  But when I finally did see the film on TV a few years ago, I was fascinated.  I not only bought a DVD copy of the movie, I hunted down and read the novel it was based upon, also called The Searchers, written by Alan LeMay and published in 1954.

Searchers - FrankelI’ve just finished reading Glenn Frankel’s The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, which tells the story from the historical background to the making of the movie, with several stops along the way.  The book appealed to my interests in Texas history, movies, and writing, and proved to be both satisfying and entertaining on all counts.

After a brief introduction, Frankel begins with the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, captured by Comanche raiders in 1836 and “rescued” in 1860 after twenty-four years and three children (the youngest of whom, her daughter Prairie Flower, was rescued with her).  Although Cynthia Ann, who never adjusted well to life with her relatives, left no record in her own voice, Frankel found unpublished papers written by her cousin Susan Parker St. John, which filled in many pieces of her story.  The background of The Searchers, however, is not so much Cynthia Ann’s story as it is the tale of those who looked for and eventually found her.

The book continues with a biography of Cynthia Ann’s surviving son, Quanah Parker.  Relatively little is known about Quanah’s youth (or the fate of his brother, Cynthia Ann’s middle child), but Frankel documents his career as the leader of the Comanche during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and his own search for his mother and her family.

Searchers - LeMayFrankel goes on to cover the career of novelist Alan LeMay before he dives into the stories of the men responsible for the movie, director John Ford and actor John Wayne, and the process of turning LeMay’s novel, set thirty years after the historical Parker story, into Ford’s film.  As a writer, and as someone who has both seen the movie and read the novel, I found this section especially interesting.  Some choices were obvious and commercial, while some were based more on the structural differences between written and visual story telling.

The descriptions of filming the story were just as fascinating.  No computers or CGI special effects in the early fifties, and very few roads into Monument Valley (this Texas story was filmed in Utah, as were many of Ford’s Westerns), Searchers - DVDwhere everything had to be brought in by truck and the heat often passed 100 degrees.  Behind the scenes were Ford’s struggles with his financial backers and his rather appalling treatment of his actors and technical people.

Woven through Frankel’s descriptions of history, movies, and the people who made both are the themes of the Western as American Legend: family and bigotry, heroism and violence, the clash of cultures, seen from both sides of the divide between the settlers and the Comanche.

I could hardly put the book down.  Now I want to read the novel and watch the movie again.

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